Friday, August 29, 2008

The Klingon Language: Another Useless Trekkie Extravagance?

First gained widespread popularity beyond the Trekkie fanbase due to the release of the last Star Trek Original Series motion picture titled The Undiscovered Country. Is the Klingon language useful in our everyday life?

By: Vanessa Uy

Being the last movie of the original series Star Trek, my first impressions of The Undiscovered Country was that William Shatner, who plays Captain James T. Kirk, and the rest of the original series cast, were allowed to have free reign to prove that they are as literate about Shakespeare as Patrick Stewart was. Given that the Next Generation captain was a well-known Shakespearean actor. But it changed further into the thick of things when the Klingons in the Undiscovered Country were unabashed Shakespeare fans and freely quoting his works in both English and Klingon. Given that English language has penetrated every corner of the world, why would anyone bother to learn another language, especially a supposedly fictitious one and not of this Earth?

If you’re concerned that during the last thirty years, half of the world’s 6,000 languages that we no of are either extinct (the native speakers have all passed away) or is dying due to the pressures of globalization to learn the English language at all costs. Or if you live in a “culturally despotic” country like the Philippines were teaching various dialects – especially ones spoken by ethnic Muslims – is about as illegal as making high explosives using household cleaners, then yes, you should be concerned. The good news is that in learning dialects spoken by ethnic Filipino Muslims is possible if you get enrolled in a CIA “spyschool” in Langley, Virginia or study for yourself in the US Library of Congress.

The question now is why learn – as the actors who played Klingon characters on a Star Trek set frequently describe it as - the guttural spit-spaying, made up language? Well, it does lead to authenticity even if it’s “only a movie” to someone who is naturally born for a penchant for languages, my ears (and brain) can easily discern a genuine language with real syntax and grammatical structure as opposed to mere gibberish used in very early Hollywood movies.

And believe it or not, there is already a plethora of Klingon language learning schemes. Plus books like the Klingon Dictionary by Pocket Books, also, an audio-tape by Simon & Schuster on how to learn Conversational Klingon. And also correspondence courses like the Philadelphia-based Klingon Language Institute. Lawrence Schoen, a linguist, psychologist and founder of the Klingon Language Institute has described many of the Institute’s members as those who want to be more authentic while role playing in Klingon persona. Though some of them had played as extra Klingons on an actual Star Trek set, most of them are just happy to wow their fellow Trekkies in Star Trek conventions by performing works of Shakespeare – like Hamlet - in the Klingon language or by giving lessons to interested parties. Lawrence Schoen summarizes their work in the Klingon Language Institute akin to that of a typical linguist approach it’s study to that of a dead language with no living speakers.

The foremost authority of the Klingon language – given actual involvement on an actual shooting of a typical Star Trek episode – is linguist Marc Okrand. He created Klingon for Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, a time before Trekkies dressed as Klingons were performing Shakespeare in their native tongue at Star Trek conventions. Marc Okrand created the Klingon with a much-increased lexicon for Star Trek III based on snippets of Klingon heard in the Original Series and the first Star Trek movie and went from there. By combining sounds heard in Arabic, Yiddish, Japanese, Native American / First Nations tongues, and more. Okrand picked real human sounds, but mixed them in a way that is kind of “ergonomically difficult” for us native earthlings to utter. According to Okrand, the still-limited Klingon vocabulary will keep on expanding as is normal on a still-living language. Or as long as Klingons stay active in the Star Trek universe. Even Klingon enthusiasts are using the existing lexicon to write Klingon fiction based on the anthropological background and history of the Klingon race portrayed in Star Trek. Given the current progress, anthropologists and sociologist thousands of years in the future might probably conclude that the Klingons are a real and distinct race with their own culture if existing records doesn’t state that they are just works of late 20th Century science fiction.